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UNIT 2: History and Memory



All people seek their origins in what came before them; they derive their identities from both individual and collective memories. The past can be recalled and retold in many ways, whether it is through the written word, history, myth, legend, oral tradition, art, or performance. History is often told as a linear narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Human memory is more elusive — vivid for some experiences, faint for others — and not necessarily linear. However, both history and memory are selective, changeable, and open to contestation and competition. Both are expressed in multiple voices and are continually altered. Just as social memory is molded by community experiences and contemporary concerns, historians too reinterpret the past in response to shifting concerns and questions shaped by the world they inhabit. In the ever-changing landscapes of history and memory, it is as important to know what has been forgotten as to understand why and how an event or a person has been remembered.

This unit explores questions about how our notions of historical memory have changed over time and in different places. Both individual and collective identities are closely tied to how the past is remembered. Individual identities derive in part from family experiences recalled and recounted over generations, along with genealogical records — from handwritten names in family bibles to computerized official documents that certify birth, marriage, and death. Community identities — from village to nation to planet — are rooted in shared remembrance of collective experiences, and are defined by the ways that remembrance is reconstructed and represented.

Nations in particular make use of — and often reinvent — the past to construct national identities. Textbooks teach national history in schools; national museums house historical artifacts; and national libraries archive written records of the past. People also collect and preserve artifacts and records of local histories, and they display these community histories in local museums, on the World Wide Web, and even in school classrooms.


Time Period: 1500-present

Like Unit 1, this unit is designed to provide an overall framework for the study of world history. However, most of the case studies concern the period after 1500, and can be used to illustrate issues resulting from European-American contact (Columbus and the reinterpretation of the Maya) or the competing historical memories of colonialism and World War II (Korean National Museum).

AP Themes:

  • Explores interactions in economics and politics through the international exchanges brought about by the Columbian encounter and World War II.
  • Examines change and continuity through the various ways historical memory has changed over time about Christopher Columbus, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the legacy of Japanese imperialism in Korea. Change and continuity are also addressed through the way scholarly opinion about ancient Mayan society has changed in light of new archaeological and linguistic evidence.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments in the Americas and Korea by looking at the cultural impact of shifting historical memories about Columbus, World War II, and Japanese imperialism, and by looking at the intellectual impact of scholarly reevaluations about Mayan culture.


  • Question 1: What are some of the different ways individuals and groups remember and represent the past?
  • Question 2: What are some of the causes that prompt professional historians to reinterpret and ask new questions of the past?
  • Question 3: What are some of the ways twentieth-century world historians have helped to shape collective memories of the past?
  • Question 4: Why is commemoration of the past a source of conflict, and how do individuals and groups challenge the collective memories of other individuals and groups?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Shared remembrance, also called social memory, integrates people at many different levels — from the family to the nation to the international arena.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Different individuals and groups often have competing social memories because of their different experiences and perspectives. These competing social memories (also called counter-memories) can challenge and even change dominant versions of the past.

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